Carolyn Donnelly: My passion for fashion? It’s a disease
The emphasis on quality and value is why this veteran designer is proud to be working for Dunnes Stores
Caroline Donnelly, wearing a navy wrap jacket €129 and white T-shirt €25 from her own collection. ‘These days we all lead many lives, often in the same day, and women can find the clothes to match all these aspects of their busy lives in Dunnes,’ she says
She hates being photographed, but veteran fashion designer Carolyn Donnelly, creative director of Dunnes Stores since 2011, looks much the same as she did when she began her career some 40 years ago. Those springy blond curls – “they define me,” she laughs – have not changed much nor has her passion for fashion waver. “It’s a disease, really,” she admits with a shrug, in her spacious office overlooking South Great George’s Street.
We meet in Dunnes Stores HQ, home to some 600 employees, in the aftermath of her much-lauded presentation of the autumn/winter womenswear collections. Stylishly displayed, it brought together the nine brands and all their designers in one space, each with their own video. It made a big impact on all who saw it, many of the opinion that this should be done more regularly. “Dunnes don’t like to talk about what they are doing, but I am very proud of what we have achieved in eight years,” says Donnelly.
The backbone of Dunnes is the main collection – the designers are the icing on the cake
Originally brought in to do homewares, her first fashion line for the company was in 2013. At that time the only other high-profile designer was Paul Costelloe. “Mrs H [as CEO Margaret Heffernan is known in Dunnes] took a bet on me. She trusts her instincts and gave me complete rein.” Today, Dunnes have their own main range – Gallery, Savida and The Edit all designed in-house and Paul Costelloe, Lennon Courtney, Peter O’Brien, Joanne Hynes, Helen Steele and Carolyn Donnelly each with their own platforms. “The backbone of Dunnes is the main collection – the designers are the icing on the cake. It is all about having a solid base,” Donnelly says.
“One Woman, Many Lives” was the theme of the presentation, Donnelly pointing out that women will be going to work, doing school runs, going to the gym, be out on the soccer or GAA pitch or dressing up for a special occasion. “These days we all lead many lives, often in the same day, and women can find the clothes to match all these aspects of their busy lives in Dunnes.”
Her own style is reflected in her collection, pieces she wears on this page including one of the season’s best sellers, a reversible coat with a price tag of €149. Coats cost from €99, the most expensive one in leather for €229. She shows me washable cashmere jumpers, digital print silks, supersoft loungewear along with leather brogues, boots and bags, all at affordable prices. “We are catering for different women’s taste, but the same women are shopping across all brands and fit – absolutely critical for us, particularly with online – is the same across them all.”
An outdoors person who likes “rather oversize clothes as I travel a lot”, Donnelly hates yellow (won’t even have yellow flowers in her garden), is fond of green, doesn’t like sharp or bright colours, preferring what she calls “sludgy, subdued, offbeat shades”, aspects that are reflected in her collections.
“I love travelling but I hate flying,” she confesses. From now until Christmas, a punishing schedule includes the Milan shoe fair, Premiere Vision (for fabrics) in Paris, then Portugal and Turkey visiting manufacturers before heading to Vietnam, Hong Kong, India for homewares, then on to Tokyo and Seoul. “I travel frugally because I hate carrying lots of stuff and usually wear sweatpants or black cotton pants with a lightweight jacket. I can’t bear high or tight shoes as I could be walking all day around the shoe fairs, so its Birkenstocks and slip-ons with heels in the summer, boots and trainers in the winter.”
She is proud that Dunnes’s manufacturing strength allows for value from high-quality essentials to fashion-led pieces: “I feel I am doing something that appeals to a discerning customer who appreciates quality and workmanship.”
Photographer, Lee Malone assisted by Zoe Ardiff; stylist: Caoilfhionn Walsh; make-up Zoe Clark